A fine new biography of Benjamin Franklin could hardly be better timed. All of his great nation's traditional strengths seem to be challenged. But how can America fall behind in business, technology, diplomacy, and plain self-confident good humor when it remembers the example of a fellow citizen who excelled in all of these and more?
British biographer Clark does not press the parallels, though he begins and ends with Franklin's international repute as a scientist, the man who saw the link between electricity and lightning, whether he himself ever actually did that experiment with the key and kite. It was a repute that opened gilded doors to him as the traveling agent of a fledgling revolutionary land trying to get military aid from jaded old Europe.
What an R&D (research and development) man he would make now! He'd be playing with computers the way he played with the latest scientific toys of his day. He wouldn't let American inventiveness languish.
Perhaps the scientific side of Franklin gets special illumination because Clark is a biographer of scientists (Haldane, Einstein, the Huxleys). He takes a detail like Franklin's trick of literally stilling ruffled waters (with oil carried in his hollow bamboo cane) - and points out that the secret was known back in the seventh century but only Franklin appears to have been given credit for it.
Compare Carl Van Doren's ''Benjamin Franklin'' of 1938, still the 20 th-century monument of Franklin biography. Van Doren was a biographer of writers. He appreciates the scientific Franklin. But in a longer book he offers more literary flavor both in content and in his own prose. He searches out James Boswell's sketchy notes, and finds that Samuel Johnson's biographer evidently was not all that impressed by the visiting Franklin. He lets us know Franklin was not above an ethnic joke in a line that Clark omits from the same episode about Franklin knocking himself out while trying to kill a turkey with an electric shock. He ends with a glowing effort to describe the genius who would not be confined in specialization: ''. . . in spite of his personal tang, he seems to have been more than any single man: a harmonious human multitude.''
Clark also pays tribute, in one of his pithy phrases, to the many-faceted Franklin's ''uncompartmentalized mind.'' But his final summary page concludes with: ''Franklin himself would have been among the first to agree that it was an admirable record.''
Note the hint of a needle? Van Doren does not ignore Franklin's faults. But Clark leaves a slightly tarter, more judgmental impression.
Yes, the young Franklin is ''distinctly presentable,'' lacking the later plumpness and radiating energy. He becomes the ''most important'' of the American rebels, with the possible exception of General Washington. He is among those whose efforts to raise foreign aid laid the foundations for a State Department which now dispenses it. Some doubts about his character can be challenged in the context of the times.
But Franklin, living a full and interesting life abroad, comes off as less than sensitive to his humble wife back home. He carried ''a homemade halo for use as necessary.'' With his land speculation projects he was ''ever anxious to weld public good to private profit,'' so perhaps he serves as a negative example , too, for a time at least nominally more concerned about conflict of interest.
Franklin's celebrated ''Autobiography'' has always raised a few eyebrows with its version of business is business; Clark bluntly calls it ''a textbook on how to win without actually cheating.'' But he sees some sly indications that the author did not mean all his counsels to be taken seriously: ''Franklin, moreover , often failed to live up to his principles, and generosity and kindliness then overwhelmed business instincts.''
In fact, it behooved anyone to be alert to the subtext of what Franklin said and did. Sometimes, as in a congressional controversy over slavery, he invented an appeal to prejudice so flagrant as to expose the prejudice of those who didn't get the hoax.
It was well not to be shaken by events, but could he be too casual? Consider Franklin's celebrated reply to a warning about the spies surrounding him when he went to Paris and got involved with the arms trafficking of Beaumarchais - yes, the Beaumarchais of operatic fame, whom Franklin called ''Mr. Figaro.'' Franklin merely said he never did anything but that spies would be welcome to see, and he wouldn't fire a valet just for being a spy if he liked him otherwise. Delightful to Van Doren, but Clark finds the attitude inexcusable when running a war. He says it resulted in desperately needed supplies falling into the hands of the enemy.
So fresh slants as well as fresh details emerge as Clark recycles the Franklin saga for a new generation. The writer, the printer, the puzzler, the postmaster, the military man, the farmer, the experimenter, the Anglophile who couldn't imagine the American colonies uniting against the mother country - except under the most grievous oppression. The oppression finally became grievous enough. Perhaps here is still another latter-day word to the wise in any land that continues to oppress a people.